Friday, July 13, 2012

Vegan Dinners

As promised in my last blog, this one is about how to think about main courses for dinner.

So what does a vegan do for dinner besides buy a soy product that mimics meat,  like Tofurky, Boca burgers, or Tofu Pups?

Our perspective has been to look to the past, to explore what our ancestors ate when they had no meat, couldn't afford it, or didn't choose it.  It seems that all over the world humans nourished themselves with some combination of grains and pulses (meaning beans or lentils).  Sometimes in the same dish, once thought essential for good nutrition but now no longer deemed necessary. They can be eaten separately, if need be.

Whether in Latin America where combinations of pinto beans, black beans or many other varieties of beans (see Steve Sando's Rancho Gordo's remarkable collection) accompany corn tortillas or rice........or in the Mid East where chick peas, Greek gigande beans, and  fava beans are served with bulgar or pita bread, or India where the pulses: lentils and beans in amazing variety are cooked into gravies called dahls,  and served with Basmati rice or wheat chapatis or naan. The combinations are endless.

In Asia and Indonesia it seems that the soy bean is used as cheese (tofu) or milk or constructed in age old ways to resemble meat, to satisfy Buddhists.  We are not sorry to use soy in its marvelous diversity.  However we have many other options to entice us as well.

It is hard to understand why the pulse/grain combination is so satisfying.  The recipe that follows, for Syrian Mjeddrah (lentils and rice) is but one example of dishes that feel remarkably like comfort food.  This one, now on the menu at Bloodroot, doesn't look fancy, but tastes better as you eat it, and even better the next day.  The Bible contemptuously calls it "a mess of potage", the one for which Essau sold his birthright.  When you taste it,  you may understand why he craved it so much.  It is rich and soothing.  Try it and see.  Very easy to make, it requires one pot and one frying pan.  What you must do is stir a lot of onions in a lot of olive for 15-20 minutes.  This is essential for the rich, sweet taste.  I have had many versions of this dish with inadequate oil and onions, and it is not worth eating.  We serve it every Summer at Bloodroot, with green beans and tomatoes, an olive-walnut condiment, and pita bread.

We do have many variations on the grain-pulse combination: Brazilian feijoada (black beans over rice) and Haitian Mais Moulin Avec Pois, a very spicy corn polenta with red beans.  One of our favorite soups is Mulligatawny, a red lentil puree to which we add rice.

Middle Eastern pilafs are wonderful meals in themselves.  Any vegetable on the side makes it complete.  We have been exploring Persian pilafs made best with a crusty bottom, such as potato slices, Turkish pilafs with chick peas, pistachios, and apricots.  There is Plov from Uzbekistan cooked with chick peas and a whole head of garlic.  Bibimbap is Korean "garnished rice" made delicious with sauteed vegetables and spicy with kim chee.

We have not even scratched the surface, but let's talk about easy.  Try Mjeddrah (see below), the mulligatawny, and a simple and delicious Mexican recipe for pinto beans, to eat with corn tortillas.

If you have our cookbooks, you may know that in the beginning of Volume I, the vegetarian book, we list a cooking class.  At the end is a selection of easy ethnic recipes for dinner, such as a simple Indian dinner, a Thai coconut milk dish with vegetables, and Ratatouille Nicoise--a French late summer vegetable mix to eat over brown rice.  These are all vegan, and are in the vegetarian book partly because of lack of room in the vegan book, but more importantly because we want folks to realize how delicious and easy vegan cooking can be.  A slow process of seduction, we hope!

It is important to note that easy does not mean without care.  Just as you wouldn't buy inferior or spoilt meats and expect them to taste good, you will have to hunt out the stores that sell dried beans often enough so that they will cook to softness.  The packages on the shelves for years wont be good.  You must soak them overnight.  Cooking them in a clay pot will make them heavenly.  You need to take time to rub skins off of chick peas after soaking to get best texture, and you must saute vegetables in these recipes long enough for them to caramelize a little.  After all, we want these dishes to taste wonderful.  Remember:beans or chick peas from a can never will.

More to come next time--perhaps about different kinds of rice, maybe about ice creams!  So many riches.....

Mid East Lentils and Rice

1.  In a pot simmer 2 cups of french lentils in 3 1/2 cups of water for fifteen minutes.

2. Add 1 cup of long grain rice and 1 cup of water and stir.  Simmer for another fifteen minutes.

3. Meanwhile, thinly slice 2 large spanish onions and turn into a large frying pan,  Saute the onions in 1 full cup of good olive for about fifteen minutes, stirring frequently.  Once they turn golden and begin to caramelize, add them to the lentils together with  1 1/2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon sweet paprika, and 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper.

4. Continue cooking the mixture for another fifteen minutes, or until the mix tastes done.  Correct seasoning.  It is likely to need more salt.  Serves four to six.  Refrigerate leftovers, and reheat gently.

Pinto Bean Chili

1. Soak 3 cups pinto beans overnight in water to cover with 2 teaspoons salt.  Next day cook, preferably in an olla de barro (clay pot), until tender, adding water as needed.

2. Pull off stems and shake seeds out of 3 dried guajillo chilies.  Peel 3 cloves garlic.  Cover with water in a small pot and boil 1 minute.  Drain.

3. Make a broth using 1 tablespoon Seitenbacher vegetarian broth powder in 2 cups hot water and add one half cup of this to a blender.  Use a mortar and pestle to crush one half teaspoon cumin seeds and 4 whole peppercorns.  Add to blender with chilies and garlic.  (We sell the Seitenbacher at Bloodroot.  It may be omitted from the recipe and plain water used.  But no substitutions for the chilies will give the same results.)  Puree.  Add 3/4 cup more broth liquid and 1 tablespoon ancho chili powder and blend.

4. Heat 3 tablespoons coconut oil in a skillet.  Add beans with their remaining liquid and mash roughly.  Add chili sauce and salt if necessary.  Cook until beans are thick enough to "plop" off the spoon.  Serve with warm tortillas.

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